Opinion | International

To counter China, the Senate must confirm US ambassadors

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

We've achieved a rare moment of consensus in Washington: the bipartisan recognition that a revanchist China poses a threat to U.S. interests. While there's less agreement on what precise cocktail of cooperation and competition might best help the U.S. to avoid this already Cold War becoming a hot one, there's broad agreement that China's influence ought to be countered. 

To do so, we would be foolish to seek only those strategies that check China militarily. We must also pursue the full range of diplomatic and development tools available. Anything less ties one arm behind our back as China presses ahead. But pushing back needn't be complicated and one concrete path is staring the Senate in the face: It's time to confirm President Biden's ambassadors-designate to ensure the full complement of diplomatic presence, especially in those countries most lured by and vulnerable to China's unchecked rise.

The need to confirm Biden's pick for China, Ambassador Nicholas Burns, is obvious and critical (though no less politically charged), but a range of other unconfirmed nominees outside of Asia also merit attention. Consider Latin America, a region in which China's economic and diplomatic gains offer an especially sobering perspective on the scope of its ambitions. From 2002 to 2019, China's investment in the region increased 18-fold, making it the area's second-leading trading partner, right behind the United States. 

China's grip over Latin America is vast and diverse, ranging from economic, diplomatic and educational influences, to technological, security and environmental ones. As a result, it's no exaggeration to say that the People's Republic of China (PRC) has a powerful and sustained impact on the decisions of leaders across the region. 

The fact that many Chinese companies do not adhere to international environmental, labor and safety standards is just the start. The reality is that the PRC's actions greatly harm U.S interests in the region, from propping up anti-democratic leadersundermining U.S. security relationships and worsening the already-growing scourge of corruption.  

Take Paraguay. This small country of some 7 million people is far from the largest, wealthiest or most powerful country in the region; but, as the only remaining South American nation that still recognizes Taiwan (and one of only 15 countries in the world), Paraguay is on the front lines of the losing struggle to counter China's influence in Latin America - a fact that has drawn the attention of Senate Republicans. Just last month, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) highlighted China's troubling pressure on Paraguay as his key point in illustrating U.S. disadvantages in the region.  

Despite this, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Josh Hawley (Mo.) - both vocal proponents of getting tough on China - have placed unprecedented holds on essentially all State Department ambassadorial and other nominees, including on President Biden's nominee to Paraguay, Marc Ostfield. Ostfield, currently the State Department's ombudsman, is a career civil servant and member of the senior executive service, making him amongst the least "political" of Biden's nominees, having served under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.  

Yet Ostfield, like the 79 other ambassadorial nominees on which Cruz has also placed holds, is being blocked not for questions surrounding his record or qualifications, but rather as part of the blanket hold Cruz has placed on nominees to signal his opposition to Biden's mid-May waiving of congressionally-imposed sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project stretching from Russia to Germany. Hawley added his own holds on nominees as a means of demanding the resignation of several senior administration officials for their handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal. 

The result is that, for reasons having nothing to do with Paraguay or Ostfield, the U.S. Embassy in Asunción continues to have no ambassador, an ignominious status it has maintained since September 2020. Meanwhile, China continues to dangle the promise of hard-to-get COVID vaccines in front of this strapped nation that earlier this year had one of the highest COVID death rates in the world. Other Taiwan-affirming holdouts in the region, Honduras, Haiti and Belize, are also ambassador-less with the former awaiting an initial hearing and the latter two without nominations from the White House. 

Make no mistake, having a U.S. ambassador in Paraguay alone is not a bulwark against Chinese influence. But the absence of one certainly sends a clear signal about our weakened commitment to countering Beijing's ambitions around the world. Rectifying this is simple, free, and could happen in a matter of days, making it the lowest possible hanging fruit in U.S. efforts to counter Chinese influence. That's why it's time for Cruz and Hawley to set differences over Nord Stream 2 and Afghanistan aside so that we can bring all assets to bear as we counter China's influence around the world. To do so, they need only to lift their holds. Our diplomats will do the rest. 

Jenna Ben-Yehuda is the president and CEO of the Truman Center for National Policy and a former State Department official.